Fear Factor

Seven Choices for Work Environments that Underscore the Need to Respond, Not React

May 20, 2020

Partner, NBBJ


COVID-19 illuminates the world to many pitfalls in current workplace design. Issues of density, location and balance have been laid wide open for all to attack. That’s a good thing. But in the ensuing conversation, are emerging ideas actually more regressive?

During a time of unknown, humans desperately want answers. When we’re inundated with information and anxious about the world around us, we often look for quick solutions. We also miss long-standing cues, touting reactions as fresh ideas instead of acknowledging them as changes that should have already occurred (look no further than the 35-year notion of biophilia). But more dangerously, we can generate solutions without considering what makes us who we are: human. As this unfortunate crisis fuels a long-needed conversation about where and how work is done, I’m most wary of ideas that celebrate the expected to the detriment of those doing their jobs.

Below are predictions made from a reactionary mindset, coupled with realities that have been in front of businesses for some time. These positions are countered by responses that, instead of holding our working society back, seek to pull it toward lasting results.

Reaction: We will need to de-densify
Reality: Employees have already made this decision

Yes, fewer people with greater distance in-between means less likelihood of spreading or contracting disease. But we’ve known the implications of density on holistic human health since the industrial revolution. It’s no coincidence that as the number of square feet per person has decreased in an office, so has floor efficiency as more people work remotely due to these conditions. For the last 15+ years, technology has enabled workers to vote with their feet to create “preferred density.”

There’s a strong desire to solve problems with concrete measures like physical space metrics and basic division (overall square feet divided by total population). However, this challenge seems better suited for organizational strategies that align work modes with the proper environments to support them. It’s beyond simply offering the chance to work from home – it also means not designing ubiquitous spaces that try to be everything to everyone, an aspect of the “open office” that many despise. This attitude will allow companies to reduce the number of people in a space at one time (less density) while increasing the number of employees a space serves (more use). The resulting choreography should increase job satisfaction while reducing congestion on the road or on public transit, an outcome our planet and nervous systems would greatly appreciate.

Reaction: We will need a six foot physical boundary around us
Reality: People will return to the office to overcome barriers, not to create them

In addition to reducing density, establishing physical separation between people is being advocated through the return of the protective cubicle (sneeze guard included). As much as my engineering mind loves games like Tetris, repeatable system layouts that drive how people do their work are rarely the right place to start. And what are the correct dimensions? Testing is showing just how variable the range of a virus can be.

It’s not necessarily a coincidence that when the movie Office Space appeared, cubicles nearly disappeared. Cubicles are isolating and demoralizing, they block light and view, and most use porous acoustic material (aka virus breeding grounds). Why come to an office for that? I hope that before putting this solution into action, we fully understand the risk of adding these anachronisms to our offices – and then landfills – again.

Reaction: We can fuse social interaction and isolation into one space
Reality: It’s impossible to go against our hard-wired brains

There are suggestions that we should build workplaces that enable us to be together and yet apart. Is the office of the future the awkward middle school dance of my past? Or will it be a game of tag, where we can’t help but try to guess who’s “it” – an outcome that soberly could lead to inadvertent discrimination.

We all appreciate the importance of engaging others in our personal and professional lives, especially now. With that comes the beautifully organic, somewhat unpredictable means of interaction. As a result, there will always be pinch points. Visit any grocery store now to feel this in full effect. At the height of this crisis, even strangers are challenged to respect mandated personal space. Although spatial configuration, RFID mapping, and visual cues may offer a quick but uncomfortable solution, advanced health screening and progressive quarantine protocols should provide greater confidence in our interactions. This trust-based attribute is important to team risk-taking and creativity. It’s also more inclusive for those with impairments.

Reaction: We must limit our sharing of technology, and potentially, space
Reality: Nobody wanted to use someone else’s keyboard anyway

Reducing the transfer of communicable disease through what we touch is important, but let’s be honest, sharing work supplies is almost as bad as getting the warm chair in a conference room. Although I hope the share economy continues in many forms, “hot-desking” has forced a bigger conversation around blurring personal preferences with professional support (if we ever want that concept to return, we should rethink the name).

The opportunity in this moment is to better discern the significant distinction between individual and communal uses. Such insight will be crucial to reimagining post-COVID buildings that can still become 24-hour shared resources. Psychology and urban design provide much-needed expertise in identifying the spaces and places that humans will accept as co-habitable.

Reaction: We must upgrade our air filtration systems
Reality: We’ve been breathing bad air for some time. Improving health goes beyond filtration.

Clean air is something we’ve struggled to achieve in the office for 40 years. Our fascination with sealing buildings entirely in the 1980s left us with a false sense of domination.  When our environments became artificial – lighting, heating, cooling, etc. – our minds felt we were controlling nature while our bodies knew otherwise. This arrogance blinded us from the reality that CO2 buildup in our conference rooms was impacting our thinking.

Instead of only upgrading filtration, rethink the entire mechanical approach. Thermal mass, radiant systems, and self-shading require less air to be conditioned and then circulated. Where possible, increased natural air changes are obviously ideal. Don’t forget to address exhausted air; what we spew out of our buildings not only impacts global warming but the health of our neighbors next door.

Reaction: We require chemicals to achieve healthy workplaces
Reality: Wait, more chemicals in our environments? Let’s focus on awareness.

Understandable anxiety around the unseen prompts us to default to what we know works. It also reveals the danger of environments being curative, not preventative. Yes, chemicals can eliminate viruses, but let’s not lose sight of the fact we had just committed to getting hazards out of our spaces.

While sanitation is important, much of a healthy environment is derived from individual attentiveness and choice. Practitioner insights and raised awareness around personal hygiene, general cleanliness, and bathroom etiquette will hopefully keep us from having to take an untested blanket approach. Nature (surprise!) may also have an answer. We continue to learn more about daylight and temperature as allies in fighting viruses. We can also proactively bolster immune systems through universally-accessible pinenes like cedar and rosemary, both which smell better than disinfectant.

Reaction: We won’t need offices anymore
Reality: What is an “office” anyway?

This definition depends on the work you do and how you do it. Sure, technology has increased the number of tasks we can do remotely. But it hasn’t satisfied our desire for social interaction, or the heightened sentience and better ideas that can come from it. It also hasn’t changed the fact that physical space helps reinforce the tangible ethos and culture of an organization. Without these relationships, we risk becoming teams of task-based contractors searching for identity and connection to mission.

We continue to have a dualistic mindset of work happening in either an office or at home, but as we’ve known for years, work for some people can happen everywhere. How it’s done best, however, is dependent on you, the work you’re doing, and the experience you seek. Today I’m less intrigued about fewer days in the office and more interested in fewer hours in one place, office or not. We can all benefit from mapping out what makes our individual workdays rewarding.

In light of constantly emerging and often-changing information, responding to causes versus reacting to symptoms is essential. It’s a challenging feat – we as humans will never be free of compulsive reactions because we want the surety that quick answers seem to offer. Unfortunately, though, those answers usually lie within our own spheres of influence. Broader exposure to science, history, and design thinking is critical to ensuring meaningful progress. Don’t rush ahead because you’re afraid of being left behind. Use this pause to interpret that fear, and then respond with your way of working. Exemplify awareness… your fellow humans need it.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

Is Your Real Estate Strategy Prepared for What’s Next?

Questions to Consider and What to Do If You Don’t Have a Strategy in Place

May 19, 2020

Senior Associate, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Jonathan Bahe and Kelly Griffin.


The coronavirus crisis and social distancing are reshaping how we work on a global level. For some of us, our homes are now our offices. Even when it’s safe to return to the workplace, some will feel most productive completing solo tasks from home at least part of the time.

As such, the workplace may evolve to become the “central nervous system” of organizational culture and collaboration, offering people the flexibility and professional trust to find spaces that serve their needs best. While the office of tomorrow will look different for each company, the COVID-19 crisis presents a moment for all organizations to pause and ask key questions about their real estate strategy. Below are a series of nine questions to help determine the right pivot approach, if you have a strategy in place, as well as ideas on how to help adapt the workplace — not just in the short term, but for the long term as well. If you don’t yet have a strategy in place, we also outline steps to create one toward the end.


Re-Think Existing Real Estate Strategies

1. Is your real estate strategy aligned with your workplace strategy? Do you distinguish between the two? For many organizations, a real estate strategy might be more financially and macro-scale focused, while the workplace strategy might be more people and micro-scaled focused. These are both critical components to a robust plan for the future.

2. Has the pandemic shifted long-term business priorities for your organization that would also require changes to your real estate and workplace models?

  • Perhaps you are a healthcare organization that has both heroically supported our communities through one of the most difficult times in our history, and yet face significant financial headwinds. How might this moment shift thinking about your real estate strategy and portfolio? Do people need to work on campus all day, every day? Can organizational hierarchy in the assignment of real estate give way to creative models for allowing people to do their best work?
  • Or perhaps many members of your organization were already out of the office frequently, meeting with clients or executing client work. Will the realization and acceptance of video conferencing at scale actually keep people in the office more frequently?
  • Or perhaps the economic headwinds have slowed the growth projections of your company, and you are asking what’s next? How do you be smarter about real estate costs in the future?

3. Is your existing real estate strategy focused on financial metrics or on people metrics?

  • If financial metrics are your biggest driver, you might choose to take this moment to re-examine what and how you measure success. Newer, modern workplaces, particularly those that embrace a more flexible workplace, will have different metrics than traditional cost per SF or SF per person than previous environments.
  • If people metrics power your business, how can your workplace support dispersed teams and flexible work modes, while still maintaining (or increasing) your organizational culture? What are existing people metrics — net promoter scores, employee engagement survey results, etc. — telling you about workplace environments, or about your culture that a new workplace might address?

4. Do your HR team members have a work from home policy in place that aligns with your real estate strategy?

  • If not, what steps might you need to take to align them?

5. What is your organizational approach to seat sharing and/or hoteling?

  • If seat sharing is part of your strategy, how will you operationalize the needed resources to ensure the safety and cleanliness of the workplace?
  • If seat sharing is not a part of your strategy, how are you going to effectively manage workplace capital spending for a future where more people will work remotely, versus being at their desk 100% of the time (which was already the case for many organizations pre-COVID)?

6. What elements of your strategy were already working well, and have proven effective as you’ve responded to COVID-19?

  • Maybe you already embraced flexibility, or had begun making investments in video conferencing and virtual collaboration platforms. If so, you’ve likely been more successful than others at the transition.

7. What are key elements about your culture that you want your workplace to reinforce, and is the design of your current workplace doing that successfully?

  • Will it still be successful if you have a blended approach to working from home and working in the office?
  • Do you have the right mix of collaboration spaces, focus spaces and amenity spaces to support your culture in a more flexible work environment?

8. Have you reviewed upcoming leases to see if any shifts in strategy might be implemented immediately and generate near-term savings opportunities, versus those which might be implemented on new projects moving forward?

  • Do you have any lease termination rights, or the opportunity to exercise an early termination option on part of the portfolio? Or perhaps you are in a position to negotiate an early extension with your landlord in return for concessions?
  • Having a committed team in place as a key part of your real estate strategy can help you answer the variety of questions and scenarios that will support the implementation of your new approach.

9. For projects currently in the design and construction pipeline, what shifts (if any) might you need to make to adapt to this new strategy?

  • If you are currently planning a 1:1 approach to seating, but your new strategy indicates that hoteling (at even a small ratio) might be a good fit, what redesign or renegotiation might need to happen to support that change?


Create a New Real Estate Strategy

Of course, the questions above are only relevant if you’re among the companies that already operate with a real estate strategy in place. If you don’t yet have a strategy, which would put you in good company as the majority do not, it’s not too late! Whether you are the CEO, the COO, a corporate real estate executive, or a leader in your organization, the development of a real estate strategy can: 1) Provide your organization with a clearer map for the future; 2) Better align your talented staff, the way they work and your organizational culture; and 3) Better project, manage and perhaps even reduce CapEx and OpEx real estate expenses for your organization. A win, win, win all around.

An integral step in developing a real estate strategy is establishing an effective workplace strategy, highlighted in the “congruence model” below. This model aligns multiple systems to create a holistic workplace experience and enhance human performance. Once you determine how your space will be utilized now and in the future — as well as how remote work policies and virtual collaboration tools will be deployed — your teams can make better decisions about their real estate needs.


Embrace Uncertainty to Adapt to the Future

No company could fully prepare for the difficulty of our current times. How we recover and go back to work (pre-vaccine) will continue to be debated, tested, and adapted as we learn more. The next 12-18 months will be filled with questions, uncertainties and unknowns — all of which will increase stressors on leaders and our workplaces.

Yet with a robust real estate strategy as your guide, organizational decisions about the future will become clearer. As optimists, we’re excited about workplaces that nurture employee health, connection and creativity, while also aligning design strategy with organizational strategy. Leading organizations will embrace this moment as one of the many inevitable, unknown disruptors to their best-laid strategic plans, and flex their organizational muscles to adapt for a new future.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.

Banner image courtesy Edmon Leong.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

How to Create Safer Amenities

The Role of Gathering Places in the Era of COVID-19 and What Not to Lose Sight of in the Process

May 5, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Matthew SomertonChris Beza and Paula Buick.


The massive remote work experiment precipitated by the pandemic underscores an important point — “heads-down” work can be done effectively from home for many people. Yet there is also recognition that in-person relationships play a critical role in team dynamics and overall effectiveness that can’t be emulated through remote work. In The Village Effect, author Susan Pinker argues that face-to-face personal relationships largely determine our health and performance. This is especially true for knowledge workers, the fastest growing segment of the workforce, who generally require heads-down and in-person collaboration in their work.

These developments will likely accelerate the “pass through” office, where people gather in-person to connect, ideate and socialize, but do focused individual work at home. Amenities are a crucial part of this shift. For some companies, especially in tech, amenities already comprise roughly 50% of their footprint, a number that will likely grow for other industries, too. In this light, it is no longer useful to treat amenities and workplace as distinct entities. Amenities, as social and collaborative gathering spaces, are in fact the new workplace.

With these ideas in mind, there are two important areas to consider in designing amenities: requirements for safety and meeting strategic future needs:


Making Amenities Safer

One major challenge is obvious: infection risks increase with social density. While basic measures like cleanings, masks and hand sanitizer will play a critical role in how these spaces are safely used, there are other strategies which may be employed to reduce the risk of infection:

Supporting Safe Behaviors

Amenity spaces are by their nature informal and flexible, but it may be useful to introduce a few parameters to help people use them. For example, designating more intentional arrival points to amenity spaces, where hand sanitizer or other hygienic supplies are located, can help. Additionally, furniture and fixtures can be fixed to the floor to support social distancing, taking care to maintain natural feeling arrangements that still feel intimate.

Localized Teams and Amenities

Companies could adopt a more compartmentalized workplace approach that groups 6-8 employees dedicated to a single project together. This type of work arrangement requires smaller shared work areas that may serve as a safer alternative to open workstations of dozens or even hundreds of employees. These types of spaces could be carved out within amenity areas and may be more comfortable for workers, as they’re familiar with their close colleagues, the hygienic precautions they are taking and have more control over their work areas.

Improving Indoor Air Quality

The pandemic has heightened interest in air handling approaches, but indoor air quality has long been known to have a demonstrable impact on workplace performance, productivity and health. In general, natural air change through operable windows and the creation of negative pressure by moving more clean air into a room are both effective strategies, and these may be augmented by the use of UV light and HEPA filters to clean air. Companies may also choose to incorporate digital displays that illustrate indoor air quality to help assuage anxieties.

Sensor-based and Touchless Technologies

Smart sensors can be used to alert people when a room has exceeded its recommended social density. These sensors could also be used for other purposes like identifying the best spaces for work based on the noise level, brightness and temperature. Touchless technologies on doors, elevators and other building elements can also reduce the risk of contact infection in more highly trafficked common areas. Medical device companies have pioneered a number of innovative touchless technologies to reduce infection, improve security and help people living with physical impairments, some of which could potentially be used in novel workplace setups.


Designing Amenities to Meet People’s Needs

With contact tracing, increased testing, and more effective treatments the threat of coronavirus will eventually recede, enabling people to feel more comfortable in group spaces. Beyond the scope of the pandemic, amenities will need to be responsive to people’s broader needs and desires in spaces that may last for generations. There are several ideas to consider when thinking about how amenity spaces can best achieve these needs:

Determining the Right Scale

Massive amenity spaces like dining halls, while common in large corporate settings, are frequently impersonal spaces that hold little appeal as an alternate work location. Smaller, authentic feeling spaces like cafes are often more conducive to work – both as people are eating, but throughout the day as well. These amenities can be made more convenient by distributing them throughout the workplace rather than concentrating them in one area. If larger spaces are required, care should be taken to break them up into clusters of more human-scaled settings, which creates more flexibility and makes even large gatherings feel more intimate.

“Whole Life” Amenities

Workplace amenities have evolved over time from places intended for socializing like game rooms, to spaces meant for collaboration and innovation such as maker spaces and meeting lounges. Now, the focus of amenity spaces is increasingly shifting more toward shared activities and learning opportunities that are also rewarding and enriching on a personal level. This may encompass programming like horticultural therapy or dance and yoga classes. Frequently whole life amenities are accessible to the public as well as staff and support a more holistic sense of wellness. While public access is not practical or desirable in the current crisis, it is worthwhile to consider how amenities may transition to a more public-facing stance as the pandemic recedes.

Neighborhood Integration

Amenities can connect workers not just with each other but also with the surrounding community, particularly when the amenities are situated at street level and open to the public. This will gradually become more feasible after the immediate pandemic threat has faded. The more the line between amenity space, workplace and the neighborhood is blurred, the more staff can feel like an authentic part of the community. By curating smaller, more distinct offerings, street level amenities can serve as an inviting extension of the surrounding area rather than as a psychological buffer between a workplace and the public. Where space is limited, dual use spaces that might be used as a conference room during the day and a space for public programs or community college classes at night may be an option.

Connecting to Nature

People have an intrinsic affinity for natural settings and research demonstrates that workplaces that provide a connection to nature are healthier and more creative and productive. Natural light, views of nature and amenities like greenways, parks, planted courtyards and gardens can all tangibly improve the quality of the workday. Access to nature may be particularly relevant now, as the pandemic has increased stress levels and concerns about indoor air quality. In this environment, natural settings can serve as a place of respite and relative peace.

With work tilting towards a more distributed network of at least semi-remote employees, the purpose of amenities remains the same—to bring people together and keep the conversation going. While there are health and safety concerns that need to be addressed in light of the pandemic, it is important not to neglect the vital role amenities play in creating more dynamic, collaborative workplaces that respond to people’s deeper needs for connection and community. Safer amenities which blur the boundaries between workplace, neighborhood, and the outdoors can lead the way in creating better work environments through the current crisis and beyond.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.

Banner image courtesy Timothy Soar.


Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX
Next Page »

Follow nbbX